March 15, 2010
Job opportunities in this issue's classifieds include a public transit agency president/CEO and executive director of a national program!
Finding a Path Through the Capitol Hill Maze: Tracking the Legislative Process
By SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor
Too often, people unfamiliar with the federal legislative process may feel as if they’re walking into uncharted territory when they want to express an opinion on an issue. The fact is that the legislative process—from introduction of a bill to enactment—is an orderly progression of steps, if not always in the same direction. Here’s a path to help visitors make their way forward.
The trip begins when a member of Congress writes a bill and submits it to the body in which he or she serves. Leadership of the full chamber refers the legislation to the appropriate committee for consideration.
Determining which committee will receive the legislation, though, may be a less straightforward process. For example, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee considers transportation authorization bills, including public transit, but transit financing issues (including the Highway Trust Fund) go to the Ways and Means Committee, while the House Appropriations Committee has jurisdiction over the apportionment of funds. The DOT appropriations bill also covers the Department of Housing and Urban Development, while the Department of Homeland Security has its own appropriations bill, which includes transit security.
The situation among the different modes of transportation is even more dispersed in the Senate: the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee oversees public transit; the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee does the same for highways; and the Commerce Committee has responsibility for passenger and freight rail, including intercity rail. The Senate Appropriations Committee takes care of transportation appropriations, but the Highway Trust Fund is the purview of the Senate Finance Committee.
As public transit is seeking to participate in climate change legislation, that process involves participating with even more committees, primarily the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senate EPW.
The administration launches the legislative process for such major bills such as budgets and the pending transportation authorization bill by submitting its version of the legislation to Congress. Congress rarely enacts the administration’s bill without making changes.
Members of Congress introduce a large number of bills, many of which never progress beyond consideration by a committee or subcommittee. Legislators need a reason to move a specific bill, such as funding specific needs or dealing with a particular problem.
Steps in the Process
After the member of Congress submits his or her bill and the leadership sends it to the committee of jurisdiction, the legislation is taken up first in a subcommittee, then in the full committee. Senior committee staff plan hearings on topics related to the issues covered in the bill; they receive input from members of the committee, consult with interested organizations, and ultimately invite witnesses to testify.
The subcommittees prepare draft legislation for the full committee, incorporating information obtained during the hearings into the original bill. Separate bills on similar topics may make their way through the House and Senate at the same time, each with its own schedule for hearings, committee meetings, and procedural votes.
Subcommittee members “mark up” (amend) the draft bill until the majority agrees to submit the revised bill to the parent full committee, which then holds its own mark-up session. The full committee may insert entire new sections to the bill, even to the point of preparing a completely different version. If components of the legislation fall under the jurisdiction of another committee, it goes there after passing the primary committee by majority vote.
After the committees finish their oversight, the bill is then “reported out” to the full chamber of its respective body of Congress.
The full House and Senate debate, amend, and vote on their respective bills, after which a conference committee is formed to reconcile differences between the two and arrive at a mutually acceptable compromise.
Once the conference committee agrees on a final version of the bill, it is returned to each body of Congress for final passage. The full House and Senate must vote on conference bills in their entirety, exactly as presented by the conferees. When the conference bill has passed both houses, it goes to the president for signature or veto.
Participating in a Hearing
An important part of any hearing before a House or Senate committee is the participation of expert witnesses who can share their experience with the panel. In the case of public transportation, these could be professionals from either the public or private sector or from academia.
“We get witnesses from a variety of places,” said Jim Berard, director of communications for the House T&I Committee. “Many are recommended to us by experts in the field; some are people we’ve already dealt with in the past; and some we’ve stumbled across because they’ve published on the topic of the hearing or are in the forefront of an issue that is of interest to the committee.”
According to Berard, committee members and professional organizations may recommend people who are knowledgeable on a specific issue being covered by a hearing. “Very often, the idea to hold a hearing itself might come from a suggestion by an association or an industry, which would then lend itself to bringing [someone from] that organization forward as a witness.” Berard added that organizations with knowledgeable employees should reach out to Congressional committees for possible participation in a hearing.
Justin Harclerode, communications director for the committee’s Republican staff and members, described the procedure through which a Congressional panel selects witnesses for a hearing. “Generally, the majority party finds most of the witnesses, though the minority has some input into the selection as well,” he explained. “A lot of times, the witnesses will come from industry groups in Washington, but members of the committee will certainly have good ideas about who might serve as a good witness on a topic, based on their affiliations in their home states and local communities.”
The witnesses submit their written testimony in advance of the hearing, so all committee members can receive copies. The text of the written testimony appears on the committee’s web site following the hearing.
The entire process can take some detours: many bills never emerge from committee, while others become part of larger pieces of legislation, or re-emerge in a slightly different form. But all these steps ultimately lead to enactment of a federal law.
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Legislative History
1/26/2009 – Introduced in House
1/28/2009 – Passed/agreed to in House: Passed: 244 (Yeas) – 188 (Nays).
2/10/2009 – Passed/agreed to in Senate: Passed Senate with an amendment by vote of 61 (Yeas) – 37 (Nays).
2/12/2009 – Conference report H. Rept. 111-16 filed.
2/13/2009 – Conference report agreed to in House: On agreeing to the conference report, 246 (Yeas) – 183 (Nays), 1 Present.
2/13/2009 – Conference report agreed to in Senate: Senate agreed to conference report by vote of 60 (Yeas) – 38 (Nays).
2/13/2009 – Cleared for White House.
2/16/2009 – Presented to President.
2/17/2009 – Signed by President.
2/17/2009 – Became Public Law No. 111-005.